Translating Literature

Risking oversimplification, art could be defined as the highest form of expression of any given culture. For contemporary culture the definition could perhaps be adapted to “art is the most revealing, or provocative, form of expression of any given culture.” In either case the implication is the same: it is works of art that offer us the greatest insights into that culture.

Of the three broad categories of art – the visual arts, the literary arts and the performing arts (music, theatre, dance and film) only the literary arts rely exclusively on language. Consequently access to them is restricted to those who have mastered the language (which is, in the majority of cases, their mother tongue). Hence the requirement for translation.

And there, as someone once said, lies the rub. The translator enters the picture as a second, and in a certain sense secondary, creative figure. The translation of a work of literature is no longer the work of one artist, but of two. Whereas the original author created the work, its recreation depends on the translator – so regardless of whether he is brilliant, mediocre or dreadful, the translator is an artist too. He is a secondary artist because his creative efforts are entirely dedicated to the service of the first (whether or not he is a well-known writer himself). His role is comparable to that of a conductor who transmits the composer’s music to a public who, with their own resources, are not equipped to study and interpret the score.

Like their creators, works of art have a body (the content) and a soul (the spirit of the work). The translator must be as faithful as possible to both. It is not a question of simply transporting linguistic elements from one side of an imaginary line to another; it is a question of transforming them so that they fit comfortably into their new linguistic universe. The quotation from Paul Auster’s novel ‘The Book of Illusions’ where the narrator says “Translation is a bit like shovelling coal” is almost always taken out of context, as if he considered that a translator’s work refers only to the mechanical part of the process. But the narrator continues: “You scoop it up and toss it into the furnace”. And it is out of the furnace that the transformed work of literature must emerge, like a phoenix reborn from its ashes.

Metaphors aside, the translated text, while adhering precisely to the meaning of the original, should be completely authentic and flow as if the work were originally conceived in the target language. At the same time it should reflect the style and mood: writers may use long, breathless sentences or short staccato ones. The style may be poetic and expansive or caustic and dry. Each text has its own rhythm and sonority; some clearly intended for reading aloud. A book can make us indignant; it can make us laugh; it can make us cry. The translation must do so too.

These are high ideals and certain conditions are required before they can be met. Firstly it is essential that the translator have a deep knowledge of the source language and that the target language be his native tongue. It is an enormous advantage if he lives or has lived in the country where the literature in question was produced and has absorbed its language and culture.

The translator’s art can be summed up in a simple maxim: “Go for meaning. Change what has to be changed; leave what doesn’t as it is.” The success of a translator’s work depends on his or her capacity to detect the difference.

There is a famous prayer called the Serenity Prayer, which runs like this:

Oh Lord,
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

which I have used to create THE TRANSLATOR’S PRAYER:

Oh Lord,
Grant me the perception to leave the things I shouldn’t change,
The capacity to change the things I must,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Amen!